Here we go again. Even those who feel most passionately on this subject must now feel weary at hearing the same set of arguments repeated for and against the long-pending Women's Reservation Bill. While across party lines women politicians are convinced that the Bill must go through - the notable exceptions being Jaya Prada of the Samajwadi Party and Uma Bharati of the Bharatiya Janashakti Party - the same set of male politicians who opposed it in the past continue to do so.
Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United), who will long be remembered for his remark that the Bill would bring into Parliament more women with short hair, has once again staked his claim to notoriety by threatening to drink poison rather than allow the Bill to pass. Although he has retracted this comment, his penchant for the dramatic remains unaltered over the years. Of the other Yadavs, Mulayam sets out the same arguments as Sharad, about a separate quota for Backward Castes, while Lalu, after initially maintaining a diplomatic silence, has now aligned himself with Mulayam and Sharad. And interestingly, while the BJP is whole-heartedly supporting the Bill, its allies, JD (U) and Shiv Sena are opposing it.
The major difference this time from the episodes in the past when the Bill was introduced and then pushed to committee in the face of opposition is that the government has enough support to get two-thirds of the votes in Parliament. Thus, regardless of the threats and noises made by those who oppose it, the Bill could be passed.
It will not happen overnight or even within the 100 days promised by the government because it is still in committee and that committee has to be reconstituted. Given the way these processes work, even setting up a new Committee on Law and Justice will take some time. So the earliest we could see the Bill emerge again would be in the winter session of Parliament. A great deal can happen before that eventuality.
Dr N Jayaprakash Narayan of Lok Satta, newly elected to the Andhra Pradesh Assembly in the elections just held, said the proposed rotation of reserved one-third seats once in every general election would result in unseating two-thirds of incumbents in every general election. He cautioned that when male incumbents were forced out, they tended to field their womenfolk as proxies hindering development of natural leadership. "Such compulsory unseating violates the very principles of democratic representation and jeopardises the possibility of any legislator choosing a constituency and nursing it. When legislators do not have the incentive to seek re-election from the same constituency, politics will become more predatory and unaccountable," he said.
Pointing to the alternative proposed by Lok Satta, he said the Bill should instead make it mandatory for every political party to field women in one-third of constituencies in every State, taken as a unit, for Lok Sabha elections. He also pointed out that the Government Bill in its present form was silent about women's representation in the Rajya Sabha and the Legislative Councils. In addition, the Bill warrants a Constitutional Amendment.
In its anxiety to push through the Bill, the government could brush aside genuine reservations about the current draft of the law and place it before the House unchanged. If there is a constructive debate, something that is not at all guaranteed, then once again the Bill could go into committee to incorporate recommendations. If there is no debate but disruption, as in the past, the government might withdraw it and send it to committee. Or if there is some debate but little opposition, the Bill could go through in its current form.
The last outcome would be the most unsatisfactory. For, if the government fails to take on board some of the constructive suggestions that have been made on the draft, the Bill that is placed in Parliament and somehow pushed through might not serve the purpose for which it has been conceived. The main reason for advocating a quota for women in Parliament is because women do not have a level playing field in the world of politics. Even though political parties have promised to field more women candidates, in fact their numbers have not increased. More women were elected to the 15th Lok Sabha because women's success rate is much higher than that of men. Given this, if political parties had ensured that at least a third of their candidates were women, it is possible that their number in Parliament would have seen a dramatic increase. That this has not happened illustrates the problem women face, particularly those without family connections, to find a place in the political arena.
A quota will automatically bring up the numbers. But will it make a difference? Who are the women who will get elected? The Yadavs believe that this will only empower the "elite class" of women. That can only be proven if tested.
What has been tested and has not worked satisfactorily is the system of rotation of seats. Through the 73rd and 74th amendment, the 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayats and nagar palikas is implemented by reserving one third of the constituencies for women. But as this changes after each election, women cannot stand from the same constituency. A study by the Panchayati Raj Ministry had recommended that this system be scrapped as they found that only 15 per cent of the women got re-elected for a second term.
This happens because when male politicians find that their constituency has been reserved for women, they make their wives or women relatives contest. And once the constituency reverts to being general, they reclaim it and send the women back to the kitchen. Thus, the women literally tend the constituency for their men until it can be returned to them. This makes a mockery of the spirit in which the idea of quotas was conceived. Only a few women have managed to break through and win from "general" seats after first having won through the women's quota.
Several alternative systems have been mooted but none of them are as simple to implement as the rotation system. Even so, given the experience at the local government level, the issue of whether the Bill should continue with the rotation system for Parliament and State assemblies must be addressed before the final draft of the Bill is placed in the House.
We love symbols in this country. We have a woman President and a woman Speaker of the Lok Sabha. We also have powerful women heading leading national parties. But all of this and the Women's Reservation Bill together do not necessarily add up to women's "empowerment". Symbolism serves a purpose if it is followed up by solid programmes and efforts that can make a difference to the lives of women, that can give them economic and physical security and above all that can guarantee that their voices will be heard regardless of their caste or class.